What happens when two musical superstars get together and make a duet in 1982? You get “Ebony and Ivory,” a supposedly inspirational but definitely corny song written by Paul McCartney, produced by legendary Beatles producer George Martin, and performed by McCartney and Stevie Wonder.
No one is going to argue the merits of both of these artists as two of the greatest of all time, but in the early 80s, both were at a crossroads. McCartney, who had been a solo artist for about 12 years, had maintained success in the 70s through his band, Wings, but their fortunes were at a low point, and he had begun recording on his own once again. Stevie Wonder had just come off a string of critically acclaimed studio albums in the 70s and was at the peak of his commercial powers in 1982 (and had recently gotten MLK Day to be officially recognized). So I guess the real question was: why not get together and sing a song about racial equality?
“Ebony and Ivory” refers to the co-dependence of black and white keys on the piano (or keyboard, oh lord). After all, if they can live together, why can’t we??? Fun fact, there are 88 keys on a piano, but only 46 unique words in “Ebony and Ivory.” And three of those words are “Ebony” “and” “Ivory,” and one of those goddamn words is “oooh.”
Maybe you don’t need to say a lot to get your point across (some who think they’re real clever might argue that their point of racial equality is so simple they don’t need to say a lot), but come on, Paul, you can do better, especially when the song is nearly four excruciating and painful minutes long.
Put more simply, the song is a classic piece of 80s inspirational drivel, alongside “We Are the World,” or “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” and while it’s arguably better arranged than either of those songs, it’s still nothing to laugh at. It’s commercial popularity was more likely due to the sheer star power that they both brought to the table, and not the actual quality of the song itself.
But let’s put the song aside and talk about the video. When “Ebony and Ivory” was released, MTV had only been around for about 8 months, so it’s pretty obvious that the video was made in the hopes that it would get a lot of rotation. And this video, ho boy, are you in for a treat. This video isn’t one of the “greats” either. In fact, according to McCartney, he and Stevie didn’t even film the video at the same time because of scheduling conflicts. So yeah, I assure you, it turned out great, and it’s definitely not completely obvious that they aren’t in the same room.
You might be thinking that I’m being a little harsh on a song that promotes racial equality, so let me just say that I’m all for racial equality, I’m all for harmony, and living side by side. But, I’m just not convinced that this song did anything for race relations and was more of a commercial ploy than anything else. Unless there were two kids of different races who weren’t getting along prior to this song and then bonded over the fact that they both liked this song. That could’ve happened.
After its release, “Ebony and Ivory” was a commercial force to be reckoned with, hitting #1 on May 15th, 1982 and staying there for 7 weeks. It was the fourth biggest hit of the year, was McCartney’s longest running #1 post The Beatles, and was Stevie Wonder’s best performing single as well.
So, “Ebony and Ivory”: huge hit for all involved, good and important topic to cover, but not well written, video is a mess for what its budget probably was, more than likely didn’t help race relations. On the Paul McCartney duet scale, this one has to be one of the worst, if not the worst, but he would make up for it not even a year later.